Friday, May 4, 2012

Your Child Chooses Right from Wrong

     To make a very long and interesting story sort, our weekly play group was recently busted by the cops. No, apparently, they did not have better things do to as the raid included two uniformed officers (one of which was observing us for about 45 minutes before the raid), the police chief,  and one plain-clothes cop.  As a result, we have had to crack down on some of the unruly behavior that was taking place.  Namely, big kids on the baby swings, nerf guns (did you know these are actually illegal in some areas??), and dirt throwing. The children that meet at the park range in age from 5-months to 16-years.  Needless to say, each age group is adapting to these new rules a little differently- some of the younger kids are now policing themselves while some a little older are not at all interested.  Are these differences just personality driven, or is it something else?  According to Lawrence Kohlberg (I previously wrote about his ideas on children's dreams here.) there are six specific, set stages of moral judgement which could help us anticipate how the children might react to the new rules. 
Following the rules at playgroup
    To uncover his stages, Kohlberg and his staff interviewed boys and girls from different countries who were 10, 13, and 16 (although the initial sample only focused on boys from Chicago.)  The children were given a series of what I would consider pretty tough moral dilemmas.  Here's a breakdown of one:
  A woman has cancer that might be cure by a new drug that was recently discovered in the same town.  The druggist is charging 10 times what it costs him to make it, making it too expensive for the woman's husband (Heinz), despite the fact he tried to borrow money from everyone he knew.  Heinz told the druggist his wife was dying and requested the drug at a lower cost, but the druggist refused.  So, Heinz broke into the store and steals the drug.

   Was Heinz in the right or the wrong?  Why?  Follow up questions ask about how Heinz should be punished, whose rights he was violating, and if Heinz had a right to steal in the first place.  Kohlberg was especially interested in the "why" aspect of the question and the follow up questions as they is the foundation of his stages.  
   Here are the six stages Kohlberg uncovered:
  1. Obedience and Punishment Orientation (preconventional morality): Here, children see rules as set from on high and hold them in very high regard.  They do not question rules that big people set and punishment results when rules are broken.  They believe Heinz was in the wrong.  
  2. Individualism and Exchange (preconventional morality): In this stage, kids are starting to see beyond the almighty rule of law and to different viewpoints and individual interests. (One child interestingly answered that if Heinz was ready to marry someone younger and better looking, then he didn't have to steal the drug.) They believe that fair deals can be made to solve differences, but these should still be made in an attempt to avoid punishment.
  3. Good Interpersonal Relationships (conventional morality)Children entering their teens are usually at this stage. They see beyond individual interests and look for who works for the good of the another person.  They typically see the druggist's actions as bad, and Heinz as good for protecting the needs of his wife.
  4. Maintaining Good Social Order (preconventional morality): In the last stage, children were typically focused on two-person relationships.  But, now children want what is best for society.(That's probably what you thought when you learned we were talking about teens, right??)  The vast majority believe Heinz is wrong because he broke the law. Interestingly, this stage is very similar to stage one because both believe you must obey the laws, but stage 4 thinking is more advanced in that it looks at how laws affect the whole society.
  5. Social Contract and Individual Rights (post conventional morality):  At this stage, people are much more theoretical when discovering what makings a good society.  While breaking laws is certainly frowned up, Heinz's wife has a innate right to live which must be protected.  Many in this stage lean on teachings from social or religious groups.
  6. Universal Principles (post conventional morality): The people in this stage are the big dreamers and thinkers.  They want to protect individual rights through democratic and non-violent processes. The rights of all people must be protected- not just the majority.  Kohlberg places Gandhi and MLK, Jr. in this stage. 
   As you can imagine, not everyone reaches stage 6. Differences in stage development are especially dependent on culture.  In fact, most urban, middle-class Americans, reach stage 4, with a small number reaching stage 5.   Kohlberg also found that some children can be taught to reach the next stage of moral development, but the results are not dramatic and certainly not universal. According to Kohlberg's findings, then, moral development is a child-driven phenomenon. 
   So, is this new knowledge going to help us handle the new rules at the park?  Not necessarily, but I now know that I can present rules in different ways to children.  For some, I can just state the rule, while for others I can explain how their actions might affect the community. Of course, if we happen to have any stage 6 kiddos, I could be headed for quite the debate!

Do you notice differences in how children accept or question rules?  Do you believe you can shape your child's moral development?  

Crain, W. (2011). Theories of development: Concepts and applications. Boston: Prentice Hall.

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